Hooray for our side: another privileged old white guy chopped down, career in tatters. Hear us roar! Speak truth to power! In this case the malfeasant was film critic David Edelstein, who made a stupid, quickly deleted, misfired “joke” on his private Facebook page, regarding the death of Last Tango in Paris director Bernardo Bertolucci. Posted Edelstein: “Even grief is better with butter,” accompanied by a still of Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando from the film – yes, the infamous and now controversial anal rape scene.
Edelstein had been doing movie reviews for the last 16 years on the National Public Radio syndicated show Fresh Air, hosted by the much revered Terry Gross. He’s also the chief film critic for New York magazine and appears on the CBS Sunday Morning show. He’s what you might call “an influencer”, and his 2,091 Facebook friends include many well-known feminists. One of them apparently took a screenshot of the post and circulated it or, as another of his Facebook friends put it, “narced to the universe”. (Disclosure: I’m among those friends, though have taken no screenshots.)
What was Edelstein thinking? You can hear him straining and failing to find the joke, a condition that afflicts many who spend too much time on social media and get addicted to those endorphin-boosting likes. You need another fix and “edgy humor” is a good way of maximizing your response rate – as technology critics have lately informed us, Facebook’s algorithms favor posts that produce the most “emotional engagement”, positive or negative.
In this case, actress Martha Plimpton, herself an occasional NPR host (on the New York affiliate WNYC) and in receipt of the screenshot, quickly tweeted it to her 196,000 followers along with the demand: “Fire him. Immediately.” Which happened the next day: Fresh Air and NPR announced that they were cutting ties with Edelstein because the post had been “offensive and unacceptable, especially given Maria Schneider’s experience during the filming of Last Tango in Paris”.
The backstory: in a 2006 interview Schneider said that the filming of the scene had left her feeling humiliated and “a little raped”. The rape itself was in the script, but the butter wasn’t; Bertolucci and Brando had manipulated her by springing it on her to get a more spontaneous performance, or that was their line. (There seems to have been confusion in the social media response to Edelstein’s firing about whether Schneider was actually raped; she wasn’t.) The butter reappears in a later scene where Schneider’s character Jeanne uses it to anally penetrate Brando’s character. Jeanne also tricks him into getting an electric shock and later shoots him. At the time the film was regarded as a masterpiece; Bertolucci and Brando were both nominated for Academy Awards.
These are, of course, different times. Very different! In fact, it’s not an overstatement to say we’re in the midst of a cultural revolution, prompted, of course by #MeToo, along with the fact that more women are in positions of cultural and institutional power, or certainly cultural influence – vestigial patriarchal elements are being weeded out and replaced with new values. Sexual scumminess is one of those elements, though arguments remain about what is and isn’t scummy.
One part of me cheers – bring the clueless fuckers down, let heads roll. Men: stop being gross! Another part of me wonders about the expansion of employers’ power over workers’ leisure time, among other qualms. So let’s briefly pause and examine some of the tacit assumptions and values that Edelstein’s firing brings to light, especially regarding conditions of employment and inadvertent offense-causing.
As I read it, the first unstated rule would be that there’s nothing inadvertent about inadvertent offense: jokes and flubs will be treated as diagnostic instruments, like those personality tests sometimes administered to prospective employees, and revelatory of the true character of the flubber. Corollary: a clear soul will be required to remain employed.
The second unstated rule is that causing offense is a permanent mark against you, however apologetic you might be. One flub and you’re out. An unthinking social media post will outweigh a 16-year track record. Corollary: there’s no “off the clock” – it’s company time all the time.
A third unstated rule is that men need to prove and re-prove that they understand rape is bad, and take it seriously, not unlike signing a loyalty oath to demonstrate you’re not a communist. Failure to keep re-proving it implicates you in crimes against women. Edelstein was clearly insensitive about rape – well, not rape per se, but Schneider’s account of feeling a little raped. He said he was unaware of Schneider’s interview, but that was either not believed or didn’t matter. Corollary: men are not to be believed, they will say anything.
It was once argued, among a certain style of feminist, that when women came to power the world would be a more humane place because women’s style of rule would be different than men’s – more peaceable, more fair and collaborative, perhaps even a more moral style of power. To some extent this may prove to be true: certainly there will be less transactional sex in post-patriarchal times; likely less groping and leering. But will there be a more humane treatment of the workforce?
No doubt many will see the evolution of gendered management styles from “Give me a blow job or I’ll fire you” to “Don’t tell a joke I don’t like or I’ll fire you” as preferable. Personally, I think they’re both encroachments. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
By the way, academia too has had its failed joke episodes. Earlier this year Richard Ned Lebow, a political theory professor at King’s College London who had said “Ladies lingerie” when asked what floor he wanted while on a crowded elevator at an academic conference, was found guilty of “offensive and inappropriate” remarks by the International Studies Association (ISA), which had sponsored the conference. A gender studies professor lodged a complaint about the remark, the ISA demanded that Lebow apologize, he refused. Lawsuits are being threatened. Not all of the old guard are going down without a fight!
If women are demanding an end to sexual allusions in jokes, even the mildest specimens, shouldn’t the assumptions behind the claims of harm be made explicit? Are jokes to be taken entirely literally, rather than, for instance, sometimes meaning their precise opposite (as a Freudian might interpret)? If so, what’s being demanded is a rather large-scale cultural and psychological overhaul – perhaps of the entirety of mental life.
I asked Vanessa Place, author of a tiny new book called Rape Jokes: You Had to Be There, what she thought about Edelstein being sacked from Fresh Air. Place is a criminal defense attorney who represents indigent convicted sex offenders in appeal cases; also a writer and performance artist. The book, a compilation of, yes, rape jokes, is the text version of a live performance piece.
Place saw Edelstein as a proxy for anger at Bertolucci – a relatively marginal player on whom anger and frustration can be displaced – the anger being that Bertolucci, via Brando, had sexually aggressed against Schneider. But the larger objection, Place surmises, is that we liked watching – and may still like watching – scenes of sexual humiliation. “To take this even a step further, perhaps the current cultural guilt lies in our ability to enjoy both the humiliation in the film and the humiliation of the critic. There’s nothing better than being shocked by pornography, or retweeting an offense.” She also pointed out the irony of it being a movie star, Martha Plimpton, humiliating and bringing down a film critic. I replied, perhaps a little meanly, that this was a star of declining wattage.
The exchange with Place made me understand a little more what I had found disquieting about this episode: so many subterfuges about power, so much veiled aggression, so much obfuscation about motives. So little reflection.
Maybe it’s time to stop hiding behind the “speak truth to power” mantra, when women have power aplenty – we can wreck a guy’s career with a tweet! Let’s stop assigning all the aggression in the world to men, and own ours, rather than masking it behind a scrim of trauma or sexual ethics. If you’re going to bring a colleague down for a deleted social media post, or fire a longtime employee for a flub, I say own it. If we’re retaliating against millennia of male power one film critic at a time, let’s at least be honest about the enterprise.
Laura Kipnis is the author, most recently, of Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus